When Che Guevara Met Nat Hentoff

In the new video below, renowned civil libertarian and Cato senior fellow Nat Hentoff talks about his meeting with Che Guevara when Hentoff wrote for the Village Voice. (See it also here with Spanish subtitles.) El Che is romanticized by college kids and those on the left as a champion of the oppressed, but he was in fact a main architect of Cuban totalitarianism, a cold-blooded murderer whose defining characteristic was sheer intolerance of those with differing views. The best essay on Che, “The Killing Machine,” was written by Alvaro Vargas Llosa for the New Republic some years ago. 

It is hard to imagine a symbol in popular culture in which the represented ideal is more far apart from the historical reality than in the case with Che. Surely that gap helps explain Che’s appeal among people all over the world with little knowledge of Latin America. Four years ago on a visit to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council I saw pro-democracy activist and Council member Leung Kwok-hung, a.k.a. “Long Hair,” wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt on the floor of the chamber. (Hong Kong is not yet a democracy and its Legislative Council is quite limited in its powers; in practice, the city is ruled by the communists in Beijing, which has ironically upheld the city’s free-market model and rule of law tradition inherited from the British.) Does Long Hair not know that Che despised democracy?

In his classic book, The Latin Americans, the late Venezuelan intellectual Carlos Rangel explained how outsiders, especially Europeans, have since their earliest contact with Latin America idealized the place, projecting their fantasies and frustrations, and promoting ideas there that they themselves would not find acceptable on their own turf. Thus the early inhabitants of the region were “noble savages” despoiled and degraded by the Europeans; the noble savages later evolved into the good revolutionaries, those authentic Latin Americans who fight for everything that is good and reject the imposition of all forms of oppression. Simplistic and wrong, but effective. So it is even in Latin America, where, as Rangel explains, that storyline has served political leaders well as they justify the imposition of any number of restrictions on freedom, from tariffs to censorship. Che’s image still abounds in the region. (For an excellent and eminently relevant video in Spanish of Rangel speaking in Caracas in 1980 about the central problems with Venezuela, see here.) 

Incidentally, another Cato scholar had close ties to Che. The rebel was a cousin to well-known Argentine libertarian and adjunct scholar Alberto Benegas Lynch (Che’s complete last name was Guevara Lynch). In this article in Spanish, Alberto discusses his cousin Che.